by Lori Heine
For centuries, Christians have been obsessed with sex. Though they talk about it all the time, they give little indication that they like it. Many of them are adamant that it’s sinful. As a matter of fact, they give little indication that they think of sin in the context of any subject except sex. What apparently never occurs to them is that sex becomes sinful because that’s how they think about it.
By definition, sinful behavior is that of which God disapproves. It makes no sense to think God disapproves of the very act by which “He” made procreation possible. When this is pointed out to the morals vigilantes, they say that sex causes sin because it makes people crazy. They must be speaking from personal experience, because it clearly has that effect on them.
Jesus told us to concern ourselves more with our own behavior than with that of others. “Take the beam out of your own eye, before you try to take the splinter out of anyone else’s.” All too many Christians, however, are utterly fascinated by everybody else’s sex lives but their own. Or, at least, by what they imagine them to be.
All available data indicates that sexual misbehavior is more prevalent in religiously conservative areas than anywhere else. The bedroom-window-peeping in which so many indulge leads them to behave not better, but worse. This is bizarre enough in itself. Even more bizarre is the way their obsessions have shaped religious doctrine.
The essential truth the Virgin Birth was intended to convey was that Jesus is—uniquely, in all of human history—both God and Man. That in His dual nature, neither His divinity nor His humanity are diminished. The birth narrative in Luke’s Gospel was written to illustrate this, but it is not necessary to take the story literally to believe in the fundamental truth it intended to convey. The point was not whether Mary was a “good” girl, but that Jesus is, in a special sense, both the Son of Mary and the Son of God.
We quarrel over whether Luke’s account was literally true, but that really isn’t any of our damned business. I may sound irreverent, but I’m actually far more reverent than those who presume to know the answer either way. Jesus’s Mother lived more than two thousand years ago. To talk about her sex life at all is not only disrespectful but absurd. We can be certain God would not have chosen, as the Mother of “His” Son, a woman of anything but the highest moral standards—and there we should let the matter rest.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Luke’s account is entirely factual. That means that, had Joseph not accepted Mary as his wife, the unwed mother (and baby Jesus) would very likely have been stoned to death. This sentence would have been carried out by legalists very much like those, today, who insist that the story be taken literally. Such people have always insisted that every good unmarried woman absolutely must be a virgin—then, now and forever, world without end, Amen.
In all likelihood, Jesus grew up to understand who He is largely due to the guidance of His Mother. At the wedding feast in Cana, He performed His first miracle—turning water into wine—at her urging. On the Cross, before surrendering His spirit to the Father, He entrusted Mary to His beloved disciple, John. All of that is vastly more significant, to me, than whether she was a virgin when Jesus was born. We know quite enough about her, even without knowing that, to realize that she deserves our reverence, our profound gratitude and our love.
The early Christian world was overrun with religious relics. Fabulous loads of money were made on the body parts and personal articles of everyone even remotely important in the formative years of the Church. Yet there are no relics of Mary. She is believed to have been assumed, body and soul, into Heaven. The fact that though her relics would have fetched a dearer price than those of any the other saint, nobody ever attempted to sell one, makes a compelling case for that tradition’s credibility.
For the record, I believe she was a virgin when Jesus was born. God created every one of us, and absolutely all there is, so “He” could certainly have begotten a Child in the way Luke recounts. But to get caught up in Mary’s virginity, making it the central fact about her, is indeed to miss what matters most.
Mary was born in humble circumstances. Her pregnancy was reported to have been problematic—even potentially scandalous. She could have ended up cast down in disgrace. Instead, as a reward for her faithful and steadfast service, God raised her up in glory. Quite justifiably, her honor has been held high ever since.
Legalistic religious “experts” are all too often wrong. They’ve been wrong about women, about others generally relegated to lower status in the social hierarchy, and about sex. They boast about their virtue, and about their supposed monopoly on God’s favor. But as Mary predicted in her Magnificat, also recorded in the Gospel of Luke, God raises up the lowly and casts down the proud.
Throughout the entirety of Jesus’s earthly life, Mary’s role was far more important than is usually realized, even by those who venerate her. In the theology of our salvation, according to orthodox Christian thought, there can be nothing “traditional” about the way God used (or didn’t use) sex. Jesus’s unconventional birth shows that God is not bound to obey man-made rules.
In the plan God has only partially revealed to us, sex is subordinate to love, and to the ultimate value of humankind. The existence of any individual is about more than “marriage between one man and one woman.” God’s plan for Mary, Joseph and Jesus caught the “good religious people” completely off-guard. “His” plans are always too big to be controlled by people, no matter how “good” or “religious” they might be.
Legalists obsess about sex because they see women as objects, instead of as people. They also dehumanize sexual minorities because, in their own indecency, they harden their hearts against the humanity of others. They make sex sinful, because their attitude degrades it.
Over the centuries of Christian history, legalistic control-freaks have stolen from, tortured and murdered innocent people in the vilest possible ways. Or, silenced with bribes and entertained by speculations about other people’s sex lives, they’ve looked the other way while such crimes were committed. Liars, frauds, thieves and murderers—and those who abet or excuse them—have no business lecturing anybody about sin. Given the hardness of their hearts and the thickness of their skulls, if they’d gotten the chance they would have stoned Mary, and had her Son come into this world in any era, they would have murdered Him. If they had a trace of decency, they’d shut up about other people’s sins, repent of their own and go away in shame.
Mary points the Church toward genuine Christian morality. Which has nothing to do with legalism, and which never condemns respectful and committed love. If those who care about morality hope to learn what her example can really teach them, they’ll stop spouting opinions out of their own heads, or handed down from “experts,” and study what the Gospels say about her.
When Mary asked the Angel Gabriel how she, a virgin, might bear a Child, she was asking a logical question. Her focus does not appear to have been on the morality of it—on whether it was “right” or “wrong”—but simply on how it could happen. Mary’s inquiry revealed a concern more scientific than religious. The Angel gave her a religious, or spiritual, answer, but he said nothing about “right” or “wrong.”
That doesn’t mean that right and wrong don’t matter. It means that God judges our behavior by how we treat people, and on whether we trust in “His” love. By that standard sex is sinful when human beings are treated as objects—as the means to an end. If our self-appointed sex cops want to do something to remedy that, they’d do well to address their admonitions to the nearest mirror.
If we want to put an end to our objectification by religious quacks, we’ll stop letting them step on us as they climb to cushy careers. Many of these “spiritual” celebrities live in mansions while around the world, children starve. Even if—contrary to overwhelming evidence—they were the purest of virgins, they’d do far better taking some of their wealth, using it to feed those children, and leave the rule-making to God.
According to Mary, God will lift up the lowly and cast down the proud. That may not be a prediction to gladden the hearts of legalists or religious frauds. But for those who sincerely care about living godly lives—especially those who have long been downtrodden—it is a beacon of hope and a reason to rejoice.
© 2014 Lori Heine
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